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Dr Michelle Ammerer. Picture: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

It is the organ we all take for granted, giving it hardly a second thought until we reach our senior years. But looking after your heart should be a lifelong affair, according to Heart Foundation clinical issues national director Robert Grenfell.

"If you don't look after yourself in your younger years you are not necessarily going to be very fit and strong in your later years. You might find yourself to be housebound, simply because you didn't look after your body and your heart just can't do its job properly," he said.

While it was true older people were more likely to suffer heart disease, younger people were not immune.

Dr Grenfell said a growing number of people aged under 55 were being diagnosed with early heart disease.

There were also other heart conditions that could strike at younger ages including cardiomyopathy, which is a disease of the heart muscle and Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome, a genetic disorder that can affect those aged under 35 without warning.

"We are seeing more and more people who are getting heart disease at younger ages and some of the reasons for that are that diets contain a lot more saturated fats and people are less physically active than normal," he said.

"Some subsets of the population suffer this more than others. The indigenous (heart disease) rate - sometimes occurs 20 years earlier than in non-indigenous people, but there are also some migrant populations that are problematic, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent."

Cardiologist and head of research at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital Peter Thompson said deaths due to heart disease had declined in the past 30 years, due largely to factors including better cholesterol and blood pressure control and a reduction in smoking rates.

"But the looming worry is the obesity epidemic and there is a worry among the heart experts that the benefits in the last 30 years could potentially be rapidly lost," Professor Thompson said.

Dr Grenfell said many factors were at play in determining risk.

"Our hearts are a bit like the cogs inside an old watch which you have to wind up, some of them are bigger than others: family history is a big cog, smoking is a big cog, overweight is a smaller one and physical activity is about the same size and then we go down to blood pressure and cholesterol levels. All these things work together with different degrees of impact," he said.

Every person over 45 should ask their GP for a heart check to find out if they have any risk factors and if they did, then it was vitally important to make improvements to their lifestyle and take prescribed medication.

SCGH director of coronary care Michelle Ammerer said people often made dangerous assumptions about their heart health, even to the point of ignoring the warning signs of a heart attack and delaying seeking help.

"A lot of people, I don't know why, they don't want to disturb people and get immediate attention," she said.

But deciding not to seek help could cost you your life or mean ongoing disability.

Ideally people should receive emergency treatment to restore blood flow to the heart within 90 minutes of their first symptom; after two hours the damage to the heart muscle could be irreversible.

Image: Toby Wilkinson/The West Australian

Dr Ammerer said the symptoms of a heart attack could overlap with other benign diagnoses, including indigestion, so it was essential that people went to hospital to be checked out.

"Get someone who is trained in the area to decide what it is and don't try to ride out the symptoms," she said.

"And don't try to drive yourself to the hospital, call 000."

Treatment from a paramedic started as soon as they walked through your front door.

They were able to administer aspirin, pain relief and conduct electrocardiograms, with patients diverted straight to the cardiac catheterisation lab at the hospital, depending on the result.

"Ischemic heart disease is the leading cause of death, so if you're coming in thinking you are having a heart attack, no one is going to be frustrated if you're not. And often these diagnoses are tricky, even for doctors, so you cannot be expected to work this kind of stuff out at home," Dr Ammerer said.

More than 50 per cent of deaths from heart attack happen outside a hospital and 25 per cent of deaths occur within the first hour.

In 2011, 5.1 per cent of all emergency department presentations at SCGH were chest-pain related.